BAGHDAD | From a small compound in northeast Baghdad, U.S. troops are taking tiny steps to rebuild an economy shattered by war.
Their target is al-Beidha’a, a community of cinderblock homes, apartment buildings and potholed streets close to Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces in April and May fought pitched battles against gunmen of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian-influenced “special groups” militias.
The U.S. is offering “microgrants” to strengthen and expand small businesses, help create jobs and invigorate the community. The effort also allows troops to expand personal interaction with Iraqis as they conduct meetings and surveys to find appropriate recipients.
“It isn’t a free-money program,” said Capt. Clint Rusch, who oversees the microgrant project of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, which is attached to the 1st Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment. “We’re not giving away money. We’re here helping people to get the technology and equipment they need to do better business.
“Better business means more jobs, more money in the community, and working for terrorists to feed families no longer an alternative.”
The microgrant project - part of the hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency campaign instituted by Gen. David H. Petraeus - comes under the U.S. Army’s Commander Emergency Response Program (CERP).
CERP provides commanders with authority to spend money to rectify pressing reconstruction and humanitarian needs in their battle space, such as repairing schools and homes damaged in fighting, fixing broken water pipes and reopening health facilities.
There are two types of CERP, and two sources of money being used in Iraq today. The first is U.S. CERP. About $27 million has been allocated to commanders in Baghdad for projects, according to figures from the 4th Infantry Division.
The second is an Iraqi-funded CERP - about $81 million, which is used for infrastructure projects U.S. commanders identify and approve in cooperation with the Iraqi army and central and local government.
The microgrants, however, are strictly American.
Iraqi officials “would like their money to be spent on schools, clinics, road repair, sewerage repair and items like that,” said Col. John Hort, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. “We take that and apply that money to those major areas. And then we look at the peripheral areas.
“That’s what I would call hard U.S. dollars going into a local business so that [the business owner] can regenerate that shop and make it a better place and employ more people.”
“The way ahead here is more economic and essential services,” he explained.
Al-Beidha’a, with a population of about 122,000, is administratively a sector of the Adhamiya district of northeast Baghdad. It sits at the crossroads between Adhamiya and Sadr City. Adhamiya is mainly Sunni, but several sectors - including al-Beidha’a - are predominantly Shi’ite.
Microgrants are for a maximum of $2,500. Since the program was started in June, Charlie Company grant nominations have totaled about $375,000, Capt. Rusch said. About 60 percent of the nominations are for $2,000 or less. Only about 10 percent have so far been paid - the rest are still in the review-approval-disbursement pipeline at the brigade and division level.